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Gift supports work on a stubborn cancer

Medicine@Yale, 2018 - Feb Mar


Non-smoker’s lung cancer, and associated gene mutations, are among the priorities for Yale scientists in both the lab and the clinic

For a quarter century, Ginny Grunley, her husband Ken Grunley, president and chief executive officer of Grunley Construction, Inc., and their family have been enthusiastic philanthropists. Their determination to help others has included Ginny volunteering as a court-appointed special advocate for disadvantaged children.

“Writing a check is not enough,” Ginny declares as a firm statement of family philosophy. “You need to be involved in the process.”

In 2017 the Grunleys became supporters of Yale School of Medicine, with a million-dollar gift to fund lung cancer research led by Roy S. Herbst, M.D., Ph.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine and professor of pharmacology, associate director for translational research at Yale Cancer Center (YCC), and chief of medical oncology at YCC and Smilow Cancer Hospital. Their involvement, however, is something they would not have imagined just a few years ago. Ginny came to learn about Herbst’s research because she had become one of his patients, after being diagnosed with a form of lung cancer associated with the EGFR gene mutation—a condition commonly known as non-smoker’s lung cancer.

She considers herself lucky that the cancer was discovered so early—many lung cancers are not—and also that Ellen V. Sigal, Ph.D., founder and chair of the organization Friends of Cancer Research, and the wife of one of Ken Grunley’s business acquaintances, knows Herbst well because of his basic and clinical-trials work in the field. Sigal, whom Ginny now calls “my guardian angel, my best friend, my sister,” is well-connected in the cancer community, and “she brought Roy in from the very beginning.”

The Grunleys flew to New Haven, where Herbst introduced them to his clinical and research teams, including Katerina Politi, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology. Grunley says Politi, whom she calls “an amazing young woman, so brilliant,” examined her tumor in extraordinary detail. Based on that analysis, Politi and Herbst recommended that Grunley switch from her prior medication to afatinib, a targeted medication that she says kept her cancer at bay with just minimal side effects for two joy-filled years. “To be able to see these brilliant minds at work,” says Grunley, “you’re just in awe.” Herbst agrees. “My proudest achievement is the team I’ve built here at Yale, and the way they work together,” he says. “They’re committed, and they’re caring, from the lab to the clinic.”

As for the Grunleys’ gift, Herbst says, “It has allowed us to expand our sequencing work in lung cancer to look for new mutations that might result in patients becoming resistant to some of these target drugs while building new animal models to test new therapies. It’s allowed us to explore new approaches of how to study brain metastases, and target them in lung cancer research.”

The resistance to drugs that Herbst notes has now caught up with Ginny Grunley. The two good years the afatinib gave her have run their course. So, Herbst and the Grunleys are teaming up, along with other top cancer experts, to determine the next treatment solutions together. “The thing Roy does is he gives me hope that there’s so much coming down the road, that this isn’t by far the last thing to try,” says Grunley. “I just want to make it for my daughter’s wedding and my grandson’s bar mitzvah, and he knows how important that is to me. He gets it. There are not enough adjectives to describe Roy. He’s the best.”

Yale as an institution also impresses Grunley, from Herbst’s lab to the University Art Gallery, which Ken and Ginny—an amateur artist—toured with Herbst after a challenging day of treatment and consultation. “I went from discussing all these really tough issues to this museum full of beauty and history and it was wonderful,” she says with admiration. “Yale has something to offer everyone, and to feel like you’ve been taken into their community is just very kind.” A Yale hoodie is now a frequent part of her wardrobe.

The Grunleys’ generous philanthropy, in sum, is one part for Roy Herbst, a physician-scientist they admire; one part for Yale, an institution that Ginny has come to love; and one part for future patients affected by the EGFR mutation. “I did not know about this form of cancer,” Ginny says. “But now that I do, I want [Herbst and his team] to understand that I’m not just doing this for a cure for me. I think that they can eventually find a cure for this. Whether I’m there or not I’m not sure, but I know they can do it, and I will never stop supporting it.”